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What is the Difference Between Hair and Fur?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 21, 2024
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Surprisingly enough, there is no actual difference between hair and fur. Though unique to mammals, they are chemically indistinguishable and are made of keratin, giving them the same chemical make-up as skin, feathers, and nails.

The purpose of hair and fur seems to be the same, no matter the host. Many animals couldn't live without its insulating qualities, and many humans appreciate a warmer head, thanks to their hair. Often, hair serves as protection against injury. An excellent example of this is the thick coat of fur around a lion's neck. This mane will make it very difficult for his enemies to wound him, especially as big cats and other carnivores often go for the throat when hunting. In addition to this, fur can further serve to carry a scent that can vary in purpose from species to species. Although much of the hair that grows on human bodies seems unnecessary, most believe that it has slowly decreased over time, along with humans' need for it.

The primary difference between hair and fur, it turns out, is word usage. People generally refer to non-human mammals as having fur, while humans are said to have hair, but there are a few exceptions. When an animal has very coarse or sparse fur, as in the case of a pig or elephant, people usually call it hair. Similarly, a cat or other animal without fur is referred to as "hairless" or even "naked."

On the other hand, people sometimes apply the term fur to ourselves. “He has a hairy chest,” could also be “He has a furry chest.” Generally, however, fur applies to mammals other than humans, unless someone is making a deliberate attempt to apply animal characteristics to humans.

Most people are also convinced that the two are different because fur tends to grow to a set length. The truth is, in every mammal, hair growth is determined by genetic make-up. So a shorthaired cat doesn’t suddenly become a longhaired cat if it doesn’t get a haircut.

Hair or fur length can also be genetically determined within the variety of humans. Not everyone can grow his or her hair long with equal facility — many women have tried and failed to grow their hair long. Facial hair is also varied, with some men having a lot, and some very little. Genetics tends to be the primary factor.

People also make the distinction between hair and fur when discussing animal pelts. For the most part, the pelts of animals are called furs, as in a fur coat, fur trim, etc. A few exceptions in the distinction for mammals occurs here also. For example, mohair is harvested from the alpaca and woven into sweaters and the like, and angora is combed from the angora rabbit and also used in soft sweaters. Often, these are both considered hair.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon999397 — On Dec 27, 2017

I think the question has two different motives. The scientific approach and the everyday use. These are very different and occur in many different disciplines. For example rocks come in all sizes and shapes and geologists group them in precise categories based on size range, pebbles, cobbles, boulders. They are similar to everyday usage but much more precise. In the case of hair vs fur people above are arguing from two different approaches, the scientific and the vernacular. In vernacular I think of hair as strands of keratin that have an indeterminate growth length. Human head hair, horses manes and tails, several breeds of dogs such as poodle, komondork, shih tsu and maltese. But it can also refer to texture. For instance, still in the vernacular approach, I have an older kitten that has two very distict types of top coat. One is much longer than the other and much silkier.

If I were writing a standard for a cat breed, I would describe her as having hair along her spine because it looks different, reflects light differently and feels different from what's on the rest of her. In vernacular I need a word to express this difference.

So for the most part I agree with everyone above, just realizing that they are coming from two different approaches. Science for some and vernacular for others. Something like the scientific name: Felis concolor vs the vernacular names: mountain lion, cougar, panther, cat-a-mount etc. I showed dogs for many years and you wouldn't believe the vernacular that runs around the show ring describing different dog breeds.

By anon353343 — On Oct 29, 2013

@34064: That's like saying that steel is different in a tank as compared to a battleship because one is a boat and the other is not. Steel is steel. Hair is fur. Fur is hair. The fact that the skin surrounding the hair has more or less sweat glands does not change what the hair is made of. The purpose for the hair, the function is provides to the animal, does not change what the hair is made of.

If the discussion was on the difference between hide and skin, perhaps, because it involves those multiple structures as a whole.

By anon325476 — On Mar 16, 2013

"Hypoallergenic" and "less allergenic" mean the same thing.

By anon308520 — On Dec 11, 2012

Just to confuse things a little more, a horse's coat is referred to as horse hair, while a dog's coat is fur. So they both have coats, yet one is fur the other hair?

It seems to me, as stated in the original post, that fur and hair are interchangeable. It's more about how they sound when referencing a mammal (human or otherwise).

By anon239214 — On Jan 07, 2012

Hair and fur are the same in the human eye but there are differences such as the cuticle of the hair. We all have different patterns in our hairs but there are specific patterns that help us distinguish which is animal hair(fur) and which is human hair.

By anon226610 — On Nov 01, 2011

Does anyone know where I could take or send a hair/fur sample to determine the origin of the species -- cat or rabbit?

By anon181954 — On May 31, 2011

There actually is a difference, it's made out of the same thing but the proper term for hair on your head is hair, when animals have hair it's called fur. Many Youtube and DeviantART artists think dogs and cats have hair, and tend to add it, but if they are aiming to be realistic, having bangs or hair isn't the right way.

By anon180565 — On May 26, 2011

It's sad to see some of these comments. It shows how some people will just never admit they don't know everything. If your argument is fur and hair are different, make better arguments. It is obvious some of the commenters' reluctance stems from the human superiority complex.

Yes, some humans shed (i.e. climate or radiation), some fur/hair is for warmth, some humans (esp SS Africans) are nearly fur/hairless and never "have" to get hair cuts or shave, some humans (esp snow humans) would be completely covered with fur/hair if not for razors. Many snow women can grow full beards, many tropical/jungle men cannot if they live to be 100.

By anon125164 — On Nov 08, 2010

Dogs have hair. Just look at the names of some dogs, i.e., German Wirehaired Pointer, German Shorthaired Pointer, longhaired Dachshund. I can't think of any dog breed that has the word "fur" in their name.

By anon121341 — On Oct 24, 2010

No dog is "hypoallergenic". All shed, all have dander -- just some shed more or less depending on the the breed. "Hypoallergenic" is an over used word when talking about dogs and dog hair/fur. Maybe it should be referred to as "Less Allergenic," as in the case of the not so old breed the Labradoodle.

By anon120492 — On Oct 21, 2010

Hair continues to grow and grow, while fur does not.

If we had fur instead of hair, we'd never need to get it cut, unless the length of our fur was longer than we desired.

By anon106763 — On Aug 27, 2010

I have heard the term hair vs fur in relation to dogs to mean that 'hair' doesn't fall out, and 'fur' sheds. hypoallergenic dog breeds often have 'hair' that helps hold-in dander(poodles, Komondors, others). Then of course many labeled hypoallergenic dogs are are just small so don't have the surface area to produce 'that much' dander etc.

By anon98664 — On Jul 23, 2010

There is no chemical difference between "hair" or "fur". And it's a myth about any breed of dog being hypoallergenic or shedless. All dogs, regardless of the breed, create the things that cause those sensitive to them to have an allergic reaction. These are dander (dead skin cells, saliva, and urine. The breeds typically considered hypoallergenic are also the same breeds that tend to high grooming requirements. Grooming tends to keep all the allergens down.

Selective breeding for certain physical traits is why different breeds have different type of coats. The reasons for breeding for the coats varies from purely cosmetic, to help the dog function in doing whatever job it was originally bred to do.

By anon92232 — On Jun 26, 2010

They are the same and I told my friends mom and she said it was the same as fur and hair.

By anon72287 — On Mar 22, 2010

No difference. Check Scientific American.

By anon59450 — On Jan 08, 2010

goodness you say hair and fur are the same. well let me tell you i have a head of fur and a beard of hair and it is different. just yesterday i was saying, "shoot i need to go get a hair cut," and i wanted to go see that broadway show "hair." "give me a head with hair -- long beautiful hair, flax it wax give it down to there."

By anon57518 — On Dec 23, 2009

Mohair comes from the angora goat, not the alpaca. Alpacas have fleece that can be spun into yarn, etc. but it definitely is not mohair.

By anon34064 — On Jun 16, 2009

There are in fact major structural differences between fur and hair—and the skin that grows each!

Compared to the hair of human skin and horse hide, fur is complex, comprising at least two types of hair. Awn hairs, downy and relatively short, trap heat. Guard hairs, longer and stiffer, are so called because they protect the awn hairs from damage. Furred skin has few or no sweat glands; humans, horses, and certain other species sacrifice awn hairs in favor of sweat glands. (Horses, with denser coats of hair, have fewer glands than humans.)

By anon10294 — On Mar 24, 2008

In mammals hair grows in cycles. Anagen is a period of new hair growth. The longer the anagen period, the longer the hair grows. Catagen is a transition phase. During catagen growth stops and the outer root sheath shrinks attaching to the root of the hair. Telogen is the resting phase. Exogen is when the hair falls out, and the follicle enters a new anagen period, growing a new strand of hair.

In dogs, as in all other mammals, some hair follicles are in anagen, some in catagen, some in telogen. Shedding, length of hair and presence or absence of an undercoat depend upon the timing of these cycles and the ratio of hair follicles in the various stages. Differences between summer coat and winter occur because during the summer a greater number of follicles remain inactive. Some breeds, e.g. poodles, tend to be low shedding because almost all of their follicles are in anagen (growth cycle) almost all the time; their hair continues to grow and has to be clipped. Some breeds of dog, e.g. Chinese Crested have most of their follicles in telogen and, thus, may be almost completely hairless. Both breeds are often listed as recommended for allergy sufferers.

By lisag — On Jul 02, 2007

If there is no difference between hair and fur, why are some dogs considered hypoallergenic? Why do some dogs shed and others grow long and need to be groomed (Maltese for example)?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia...
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